Monday, October 8, 2012

Grim News: Royal Ruckus Has Vanished

I am too puzzled to be sad.

It has been cold here in Minnesota, last weekend there was snow up north and this weekend we had a hard frost in the cities. During our last trip to the bee yard, three weeks ago, we didn't really do any winterizing. It was 80 degrees that day. While it isn't quite time to cover up the hives it is time to put in mouse guards, plug up any openings and make some last minute calculations about survival. So Paula and I headed down to the bee yard yesterday morning, hammer in hand and boat load of news to catch up on between us. We gabbed the whole way down, didn't bother playing our theme song and then mapped out our plan. I had not really prepared so we were short on mouse guards but at least we could get the entrance reducers in.

The yard was quite. I expected this as it was chilly and early.  I found a few piles of drones in front of two of the hives, a good sign that the girls are getting ready to hunker down. When the weather changes the bees and the beekeeper get ready for winter. Worker bees kill all the drones and throw them out of the hive. They don't do anything other than consume honey stores so the girls just get rid of them. The queen slows down and eventually stops lay. The bees form a cluster and starting at the bottom of the hive they work their way through the winter stores moving up as they need. By spring time a happy beekeeper will find a cluster of bees still eating away at the honey left in the hive, usually in the top box. An unhappy beekeeper might find a dead out, bees that died of disease or starvation.

Winterizing for the beekeeper includes looking for evidence of disease, evaluating food stores and preparing the hive for winter. We looked around the yard. Typically we don't see any evidence of disease but we don't check to hard since we are not going to treat the bees. The most common disease is nosema, a condition that affects the intestinal health of the bees. You can usually catch this disease by very distinct markings of bee excrement on outside surface of the hive boxes. Basically bee diarrhea. It is more prevalent in the spring but we have a box or two that might have some of the characteristic markings.

 I started plugging holes and checking hives while Paula worked on the mouse guards which were too big and needed to be bent to get them in place. I felt foolish for not having ordered enough to go around and not having the right sizes for the smaller hives. Mice love to burrow in the warmth of a hive box during the winter and will destroy all and any comb. Paula worked long and hard to make sure we had adequate protection against these little rodents! Anything to protect our precious comb. I would be devastated to have all our comb torn apart by mice!

I was a little dumbfounded to find Mr. Abbott still thriving although there is some evidence of nosema outside her top box. I am confident they won't survive but it is really quite something to watch them just carry on.  The Turquoise Bee was her usual angry self and we couldn't really get in to check her out. We opened up Crazy Comb, found her Queen and "took her out".  I am really feeling guilty about it but it had to be done. Katrina's Drone Den seem to have more honey than I remember her having and like Crazy Comb, The Turquoise Bee and Mr. Abbott the bees all seemed to be clustered in the top box. I wasn't too happy about that as I think the bees should be in the bottom boxes going into winter. Could be a sign that they don't have enough honey to survive. Time will tell.

Then we went to check on Colleen's Royal Ruckus. Nothing in the top box at all, well maybe that was good and they were all in the bottom box. Nothing in the middle box. I starting wondering where all the honey was that was there three weeks ago. We put both boxes aside and then discovered there was nothing in the bottom box. NOTHING! No bees, no pile of dead bees at the bottom of the box, NOTHING. We started to rifle through the frames to see if we could figure out what happened. There was some scant patchy brood, nothing substantial at all. Bees won't abandon a brood nest ever but what was left hardly constituted a brood nest,  just patches of spotty brood here and there on about half the frames. There were some dead emerging bees, no evidence of disease save something weird looking on the outside of the middle box that looked sort of like nosema but not really. We looked closely at the frames, all the honey was gone, every last lick gone and the comb in some areas but not all seemed to be torn apart like it had been robbed out. The frames did seem full of pollen.

What the heck? Is this what colony collapse looks like or is this just old school absconding? I don't really understand the difference to be honest. Absconding usually happens when conditions in the hive just are not right for survival. A desperate hive leaves with all the bees, queen and everything else except the honeycomb. Our honey was gone but the pollen was left behind. Colony Collapse Disorder is characterized by honey and pollen and brood all being left left behind and usually  the queen and a few nurse bees are left. Its all to weird and confusing to me. Some of the frames are torn apart like they were robbed but there was a patch of honey on one frame left undisturbed. When I got home I read threw my books and poked around online. For a fleeting moment I worried about American Foulbrood a disease that would mean burning all of our equipment and I mean all of it. It would mean starting over. It one point I even tried poking a match stick end into the brood to test for ropiness but who knows if the brood was past the point of maturity for this particular indicator.

I am going to my monthly beekeepers meeting tonight where wiser minds prevail. My other girlfriend Marla is the guest speaker so I am going to have to work extra hard to pay attention, focus. Hopefully I can get some answers about what may have happened to the hive from the more experienced beekeepers. I may just throw a box of the frames into the car and bring them in for those wiser minds to inspect and postulate over.